Implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been associated with a shift toward earlier stage at diagnosis for common screenable cancers, finds an analysis of nearly 273,000 patients reported in a presscast leading up to the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

“Extensive evidence has shown that people without insurance are more likely to be diagnosed at later stage, especially for the cancers that can be detected earlier through screening or symptoms,” said lead study author Xuesong Han, PhD , strategic director of health policy and health care delivery research at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. “In 2014, two major components of the Affordable Care Act – Medicaid expansion and marketplace exchange – were implemented. As a result, insurance coverage has substantially increased for nonelderly Americans.”

Study findings showed that, for four of five screenable cancers – breast and cervical cancer in women and lung and colorectal cancer in both sexes combined – the proportion of cancers that were stage I at diagnosis, and hence most curable, increased by an absolute 1% or so after the ACA was implemented. Prostate cancer was the outlier: the value for this malignancy decreased by 1%.

“The increases for the first four cancers were consistent with our hypothesis, with more people gaining insurance and access to screening services or access to physicians to detect early symptoms,” Dr. Han summarized. “But what about prostate cancer? We think [that pattern] may reflect the recent USPSTF recommendations against routine prostate cancer screening.”

“We think that this is an important study,” commented ASCO president-elect Bruce E. Johnson, MD , who is also chief clinical research officer and an institute physician at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “Obviously, the changes are not enormous; they are not dramatic. But … because the uptake of screening is relatively slow, this is certainly consistent with the idea that, by doing additional screening, you can potentially find more stage I patients, and, the earlier the stage, the more likely one is to be cured.”

“The other important thing is that ASCO strongly supports the relative ease of access to screening capabilities, and that’s one of the characteristics of the Affordable Care Act, that most of the cancer screening is covered,” he further stated. “Whatever form our health care takes over the next several years, we advocate for patients to have early access to screening, which can identify cancers at an earlier stage in their more curable forms.”

Study details

For the study, the investigators used the National Cancer Database – which captures 70% of newly diagnosed cases in the United States – to identify patients younger than 65 who were eligible for cancer screening and who received a diagnosis of any of the five screenable cancers in 2013 or 2014. They compared stage distribution before ACA implementation (first nine months of 2013) and afterward (last nine months of 2014).

Analyses were based on data from 121,402 female breast cancer patients aged 40-64 years, 39,418 colorectal cancer patients aged 50-64 years, 11,190 cervical cancer patients aged 21-64 years, 59,210 prostate cancer patients aged 50-64 years, and 41,436 lung cancer patients aged 55-64 years.

Results showed that the proportion of cancers that were stage I at diagnosis increased after ACA implementation from 47.8% to 48.9% for breast cancer (adjusted prevalence ratio, 1.02) and from 47.3% to 48.8% for cervical cancer (APR, 1.02) in women, and from 16.6% to 17.7% for lung cancer (APR, 1.07) and from 22.8% to 23.7% for colorectal cancer (APR, 1.04) in men and women combined, Dr. Han reported.

Prostate cancer was the exception, with the proportion of cases that were stage I at diagnosis falling from 18.5% to 17.2% (APR, 0.93).

In a stratified analysis, the significant downshift in lung and colorectal cancer stage were seen only in states that had actually adopted the Medicaid expansion component of the ACA, which covers low-income individuals, according to Dr. Han. The downshift in female breast cancer stage and upshift in prostate cancer stage occurred regardless of whether states had done so.


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